OPINION

Letter from Mystras

I recall some years ago when music critic Rob Tannenbaum wrote in New York’s Village Voice about a most unusual performer: «He’s got a girl’s first name, he draws crowds of adoring teens whenever he is touring, he’s a trained dramaturge whenever he is touring, a poet and a virgin.» The occasion of this article was the circulation of a CD where his Holiness, Karol Wojtyla, recited and sang prayers and homilies in five languages. But «How do you review a man many consider infallible?» a desperate Tannenbaum asked himself. You do not, or you prepare to declare him a saint. As far back as the late 1930s, there was already a Greek song most appropriate to express the wish of an ocean of people who, last Friday in Rome, wanted to pay their respects to the pope. «I am dying to see the pope! Oh, how much would I like to see the pope!» trilled the popular title song of an operetta by Theophrastos Sakellaridis on the theatrical stages of pre-war Athens – with the difference that then, in a jocose approach to love matters, there were improper insinuations in the «still-sung» text. However, current Orthodox-Catholic love matters seem less discouraging after Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, Archbishop Christodoulos as well as Albania’s Archbishop Anastassios attended Pope John Paul II’s funeral. The spring of 2005 will be remembered as a date when the dialogue of love, acts of Christian charity between East and West, made significant progress. In the words of St Peter, «Above all, never let your love for each other grow insincere, since love covers over many a sin» (Peter I 4:8). Yet you always need two for a love affair. In theology, the most serious difficulty is that Orthodox bishops and theologians do not recognize Catholic sacraments as valid, whereas the Catholic Church does recognize those of the Orthodox Church, considered a «sister Church,» as Vatican II has stated. Not to mention other major problems such as the «Filioque» in the Creed, that is whether the Holy Spirit descends from the Father or from the Father and Son. So much about love and interfamily bonds. Following a kind invitation last Friday by Stratis Stratigis, who is continuing the tradition of his late father-in-law running the philosophy school «Plithon» in Magoula, I proceeded to Mystras, the «dead Byzantine city» as it is called. Passing through a road flanked with plane trees, cypresses, olive trees and orange trees in full bloom, one reaches the erstwhile glorious medieval state. The «wonder of the Morea» was built as an amphitheater around the fortress erected in 1249 by William of Villehardouin on the eastern slopes of Mt Taygetos, later reconquered by the Byzantines, then occupied by the Turks and the Venetians. The city which flourished under Byzantine rule from 1262 to 1838 was finally abandoned in 1832, leaving only the breathtaking medieval ruins, standing in a beautiful landscape. In the great church of Metropolis (12th-13th centuries) – in whose marble floor a double-headed eagle, the ensign of empire, is set, evoking Constantinople’s claims to control both the Eastern and Western worlds – we attended the Lenten Xairetismoi Service of Salutations to Christ and His Mother Mary. Only on two days a year are there services in the Metropolis, where you are well aware that once it had been the center of an important Byzantine despotate. Here we go back in time once again and we are reminded of the Frankish occupation of Greece, when the Catholic Crusaders, having conquered – and plundered – Constantinople in 1204, shared the rest of the country between themselves. Those events greatly contributed to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire three centuries later. One year before his death, the late play-it-down-the-middle pope delivered an emotional apology to Orthodox Christians, saying the infamous actions caused him «pain and disgust.» Last October on this proper spot, at the Liberal Philosophy Academy Plithon established in Magoula by the late philosopher and member of the Greek Academy Prof. Ioannis N. Theodorakopoulos (who, in an age of bombast, was a writer of tremendous civility and grace), there was a significant international conference on the «Peloponnese after the Fourth Crusade» – a crusade, let’s recall once again, which had the backing of Pope Innocent III. And as for Plithon Gemistos (1360-1452), he is a philosopher remembered as the first humanist. Plithon was for the creation of a united Helleno-Christian civilization emerging as a continuation of the Hellenic civilization of the Roman period. When in 1450 beleaguered Constantinople was literally blackmailed by the West, Plithon in his lifelong campaign of tilting at windmills, told Vatican officials: «Why are you arguing to unify the two churches? In the future there will be only one religion, and this is the union of Christianity and the ideas of ancient Greeks.» It might have been heresy, but the mightiest Platonic philosopher of his time blew it big. Little did he know. As Sir Steven Runciman, who has also visited the Liberal Philosophy Academy Plithon in Magoula, records: «The last Christian Emperor standing in the breach, abandoned by his Western allies, holding the infidel at bay, died with the Empire as his winding sheet.» Sir Steven reminds us also that unlike Roman Catholics, the Turks did not persecute others for their religion, adding that the Hellenic community, though politically enslaved, continued to maintain its identity in a way which might have proved impossible had the Crusaders once more «saved» Constantinople. Nonetheless, let’s turn our backs to the past. Reconciliation of the Vatican with the Orthodox Church has become a focal point for both East and West. It is now in the hands of the future pope – and in the wings of Holy Spirit – to surpass the everlasting, albeit well-founded, mistrust of the Greeks toward the Vatican.